At times barely 30 miles wide, central Vietnam makes a languorous arc between the vaulting mountains of the Annamite Range (also known as the Day Truong Son) bordering Laos and Cambodia and the limpid waters of the South China Sea. The old imperial capital of Hue, approximately 400 miles southeast of Hanoi, commands the north bank of the Perfume River, or Song Huong; the south side holds most hotels, restaurants, and services. Just 60 miles southeast of Hue is the bustling, broad-shouldered port city of Da Nang. Most tourist activity is centered on China Beach, which runs south from town for 20 miles to the mouth of the Thu Bon River. Less than three miles inland slumbers tiny Hoi An, the region's most important port until the waterway silted up in the late 19th century. The beach town of Nha Trang chills out 300 miles farther south, halfway to Ho Chi Minh City. A compact, tourist-oriented quarter with hotels, restaurants, bars, and outfitters dominates the lower half of its three-mile-long strand.
WHEN TO GO
Although several different weather patterns affect the long central coast, you can't go wrong planning a trip from February through April when the monsoons have retreated and the summer heat has yet to set in. Near Hue, the weather is similar to northern Vietnam: The winter monsoon strikes hardest in October and November, bringing cool, wet weather. March and April are ideal; June through August are hot and humid. Da Nang gets both the summer monsoon (JuneJuly) and winter monsoon (SeptemberNovember), with dry, warm weather from February through April. Heavy rains can cause riverside Hoi An to flood in October and November. Nha Trang has a delightful climate, with temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees and heavy rains only from October to December.
HOW TO GET THERE
The region's gateway is the underused Da Nang International Airport (DAD), just two miles west of the city center. Vietnam Airlines operates daily nonstop flights from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and several other domestic destinations, including Nha Trang (84-4-873-2732; www.vietnamairlines.com.vn). Low-cost carrier Jetstar Pacific Airlines also connects to Da Nang from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (84-511-358-3583; www.jetstar.com/ve). Both Thai Airways (212-949-8424; www.thaiair.com) and the small PB Air (66-2-261-0220; www.pbair.com) fly nonstop three days a week from Bangkok to Da Nang. Silk Air flies nonstop twice a week from Singapore to Da Nang (65-6-223-8888; www.silkair.com). Vietnam Airlines also flies daily from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to smaller airports in Hue and Nha Trang.
A cheaper and far more scenic option is traveling aboard one of the half dozen daily Vietnam Railways trains running between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (www.vr.com.vn/english/index.html). All trains make scheduled stops in Hue, Da Nang, and Nha Trang. SE-class trains have air-conditioned coaches with "soft sleeper" berths; the bunks are clean and comfortable enough for a night's journey, but don't expect Tempur-Pedic comfort or 400thread count sheets. Hoi An is a 20-mile taxi ride from Da Nang's downtown rail station and airport.
The swiftest, safest, and most scenic option for intercity travel is Vietnam Railways (www.vr.com.vn/english/index.html). It operates multiple daily trains between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that stop in Hue, Danang, and Nha Trang as well as other major provincial cities. Another scenic option is the stretch of the Reunification Express that runs 60 miles south from Hue to Da Nang.
The local bus system in each city is nearly impenetrable if you don't speak the language. You're better off hiring taxis, which are clean and inexpensive and can be arranged through your hotel. Make sure the cabbie turns on the meter, or that you agree on a price before setting out.
The streets of Hue and Hoi An are relatively sane compared to the gridlocked traffic of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The best way to see Hue is in a cyclo pedicab or on your own bike, just like a local. Cyclos charge 50,000 Vietnamese dong (about $3) for a one-hour city tour. Bicycle rentals are available for $1 to $3 a day.
Resorts along China Beach run free shuttle vans to Hoi An, which is small enough to wander by foot. Or you can flag down a xe om motorcycle taxi; no fare in town should cost more than $1. If you do opt for the moto taxi, insist on a helmet and be advised that few local motorists observe rules of the road. Nha Trang is also a walking city, with plenty of willing xe om drivers as well.
State-run Vietnam Tourism's Web site (www.vietnamtourism.com) offers a province-by-province breakdown of travel information, including attractions, activities, lodging, and restaurants. In larger cities, major hotels and tour companies also provide free maps and local knowledge. In Hue, Mandarin Café is especially helpful (24 Tran Cao Van St.; 84-5-482-1821; firstname.lastname@example.org). Hoi An's Office of Tourist Services produces a useful Web site (1 Nguyen Truong To St.; 84-510-861-327; www.hoianoldtown.vn/eg_index.htm). In Nha Trang, a handy, pocket-size map of the city is free and widely available. The Guide, a free English-language monthly magazine distributed throughout Vietnam, contains listings of hotels, bars, and restaurants.
The Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., can also be a great source of information (202-861-0737, x228).View Vietnam Factsheet